The chaos at the border between Poland and Belarus is just the latest incident to get top brass in Brussels pondering what the European Union should do long-term about its internal security.
This migrant crisis, in which Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko stands accused of directing refugees to the Polish border, took place as fears ramped up in eastern Europe over a build-up of Russian troops on Ukraine’s border.
Recent geopolitical crises, most notably the messy withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, has cemented thinking that the EU cannot rely entirely on the United States or NATO for its protection.
Coincidentally, the initial blueprint for such a plan was presented to EU member states this week. The “Strategic Compass for Security and Defence” is a loose outline of how cooperation across the bloc might work. The document was leaked to CNN in full.
The main proposal is that the EU obtains the capacity to rapidly deploy up to 5,000 troops to deal with numerous potential crises. Rather than a permanent force reporting to a commander in Brussels, these rapid deployment groups will be a collection of troops from across the participating member states, formed to tackle a specific task and commanded from an EU level on that mission. Those tasks could range from an evacuation mission, such as in Afghanistan, to peacekeeping on a border or humanitarian missions.
The document also talks about the need for a joined-up approach in defense procurement, research and intelligence, making the bloc more competitive and efficient. It acknowledges that to do this, national and EU spending would have to increase and focus on filling in the gaps that currently exist across the EU as a whole.
Not all 27 EU countries would be required to participate; however, deploying troops in the name of the EU would require signoff and involvement of member states, and the details of how this would work are yet to be confirmed.
While Euroskeptic derision at the idea of an “EU Army” means this latest proposal is a far cry from the 1999 goal of up to 60,000 troops ready to deploy at any given moment, it’s still ambitious and, unusually for a top down, multilateral EU proposal, is broadly supported by all 27 member states.
However, these are early days and reaching agreement on anything costly from 27 countries who face vastly different security and fiscal concerns will be far from straightforward.
To get an idea of where heads are at this early stage, CNN spoke with more than 20 EU officials, diplomats and politicians from across the bloc with the aim of answering a question many have asked for years: Will the EU ever have an army to call its own?
The broad picture is that everyone agrees on the central point: Something must be done if Europe is to be kept safe.
Pietro Benassi, Italy’s ambassador to the EU, told CNN that while the Compass must be agreed by 27 nations – some that are “constitutionally neutral, [and] others that have diverse constitutional and military postures” – he is confident that the EU can “build a common strategic culture” and that the plan will provide momentum to that end.
This opinion, or some version of it, was shared by almost everyone that CNN spoke with. However, long-standing divisions exist that will inevitably slow that momentum.
The keenest country is without question France. President Emmanuel Macron has made no secret of his dream for a stronger Europe with greater integration on foreign affairs. He has even called for a “real European army” to reduce Europe’s need for US-led NATO protection.
The current aim is that the Strategic Compass gets agreed in March, while France holds the EU’s rotating presidency. But Macron might want to stick the champagne on ice, as many of his European counterparts are less gung-ho when it comes to defense.
Most notably, some in the eastern EU – countries like Poland, Estonia and Lithuania – are in favor of the plan, but only if a formal agreement makes specific reference to the threat that Russia, and to a lesser extent China, pose.